Most people know someone dealing with mental illness or are personally dealing with it themselves. Whether it be anxiety, depression or OCD, mental health issues can put a lot of strain on one’s interpersonal relationships and add a layer of complexities or difficulties to everyday social interactions. It’s not always easy supporting or interacting with a friend or family member with mental illness, especially if you have never experienced one for yourself. So, I’ve put together a list of faux pas and basic guidelines that I and many other people with mental health issues would appreciate loved ones kept in mind when hanging out with us.
Just to be clear, this is how I and other friends with mental health issues that I’ve spoken to would personally prefer to be treated and is not necessarily what everyone prefers. If you’re unsure how to approach a friend with depression, anxiety and the like, the best thing to do is to ask them what their preferences are and have an open discussion about it.
- Take Things Personally
If a friend of yours who is dealing with a mental illness stops wanting to hang out with you or stops talking to you, the last thing you should do is take it personally. Your friend is most likely isolating themselves as a result of their illness and is not rejecting you as a friend. If you take their sudden disappearance personally and decide to stop being their friend, all you are doing is confirming to them their illusions of being unworthy of love, which will turn their mental illness into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this kind of situation, you should not be personally offended, but instead worried for your friend and their well-being. This may sound harsh, but you need to set your ego aside and realize that this has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. You should regularly check up on them to make sure they are okay and let them know you are still there for them if they need to talk or want some company. Chances are they will appreciate you for reaching out to them, feel reassured that they are loved and perhaps even take you up on your offer for company.
- Pity Them
For the love of all that is good in the world, please do not openly pity a friend with mental illness. Don’t furrow your brows in pity when they describe their problems to you and especially don’t let out a squeaky “awww” when you catch them crying. It’s incredibly infantilizing and sometimes even condescending. Instead, you should actively listen to them and sincerely try to understand their situation. Plus, for some of us, mental illness is just part of our everyday life and is something that we eventually learn to manage, so when we talk about it, we would prefer that it be treated like any matter-of-fact life difficulty rather than some earth-shattering crisis.
- Dismiss Their Problems with Platitudes
Don’t dismiss your friend’s problems using platitudes like “Someone has it worse than you so you should be grateful” or “This will only make you stronger” or even “Everything happens for a reason.” You might be trying to help, but it makes them feel like you’re disregarding their experiences. Sometimes, it might even make them feel as though you’re blaming them for being ill or insinuating that they could treat themselves if they just tried hard enough (see platitude example #1). Perhaps you’re uncomfortable because you don’t have answers or solutions to their problems, but you don’t need to have any: all you need to do is listen.
- Expect Them to be Consistently Content and Energetic
When hanging out, don’t expect a mentally ill person to be consistently content and animated or to behave the same way they did before they had symptoms of mental illness. It’s most likely emotionally draining enough for them to be in public and surrounded by people when they might not have even wanted to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also possible that they avoid going out entirely because they don’t want to “bring the mood down” or “rain on someone’s parade,” so don’t make them feel like this is truly the case. Again, their self-inflicted isolation is probably worsening the symptoms of their illness and making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, so they could benefit immensely from simply being around other people, even if they don’t say or interact much. Moreover, know that it might be heart-breaking for them to watch the people around them laughing and enjoying themselves when they can’t even remember what joy feels like because it’s been so long since they experienced it. If all that your friend can bear to do is be present, then please appreciate the enormous willpower and effort that simply being present took. Obviously, your friend should never treat you like their therapist and unload all their problems on you, but you need to understand that they will sometimes have bad days, and that on such days, you will need you to be there for them, just like they will need to be there for you when you’re in need of support.